We must press for changes to the Research Excellence Framework (REF), formerly the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). In my experience, this operation, though initially a stimulus, has in the longer run had appalling effects. It has generated a vast amount of premature publication and an even larger amount of unnecessary publication by those who have nothing new to say at that particular moment, but are forced to lay eggs, however addled. In the social sciences, it has discouraged the writing of books, as opposed to specialist articles, and by making peer review the ultimate arbiter it has very probably enshrined orthodoxies and acted as a curb on intellectual risk-taking and innovation. Everywhere, it has led to an unwelcome shift in academic priorities, for younger faculty have been encouraged to do all they can to secure outside research grants which will allow them to escape from teaching, which they now regard as a vastly inferior activity; and it has induced vice-chancellors to emulate football clubs by buying in outside ‘stars’ on special terms and conditions.
The RAE has also been absurdly rigid in its requirements. A few years ago, a colleague in another university published a huge book, based on a vast amount of archival research, meticulously documented, beautifully written and offering a new and formidably argued reinterpretation of a major historical event. I remarked to a friend in that university that this great work would certainly help their prospects in the RAE. ‘Oh no,’ he said. ‘We can’t enter him. He needs four items and that book is all he’s got.’ At a recent meeting of the editorial board of a multi-volume historical project, the question arose of what should be done if some of the chapters submitted proved to be unsatisfactory. The obvious answer was to delay publication until they had been properly revised. But it was at once pointed out that this would be very hard on the other contributors, who were relying on their work appearing in time to be included in the REF. So if the worst happens, we shall face an intolerable choice: should we meet the REF deadline at all costs? Or is our primary obligation to ensure the quality of the completed work? There must be hundreds of scholars who are currently confronting the same dilemma